As Spring Training quickly approaches, the St. Louis Cardinals seem to have the 12 hitters on their Opening Day roster set, but how will manager Mike Shildt balance their playing time?
Even before we start to think about how many people can fit in right field, I want to bring up how I saw Shildt manage the St. Louis Cardinals’ defense in 2018. Personally, I loved it. It brought such a fresh perspective to the daily methodology of the lineup but a methodology I believe fit the makeup of the team.
My observations lead me to believe he values defense late while utilizing strategic offense early. I think the best decision Shildt made was putting Kolten Wong in the lineup every day, no matter what. Wong’s value at second is unmatched. It reminded me of what Tony LaRussa always used to say about Molina: that he could care less if Yadi ever got a hit, he would be in the lineup every day because he was that good defensively.
Now maybe you don’t think that’s a fair comparison, but I think Wong’s defensive upside works well with Shildt’s methodology because he has prioritized offense early.
Wong batting eighth meant that Jose Martinez could bat in the heart of the order, playing right field, collecting 2-4 AB’s a game then being replaced by Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill for the last few innings. Wong’s light bat can be supported by Martinez’ big bat and vice versa with their defense. The hope is J-Mart can drive in a few runs before his defensive upgrade comes in, while the defense up the middle is never compromised. Beautiful.
Even though this happened several times last year, it won’t be quite as smooth this year considering Dexter Fowler was injured most of those games. But the position has been entrusted to Fowler once again which leaves Martinez to pitch hitting duties, at least for the b
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There were rumors about a possible platoon option between the two, where Martinez gets the occasional start in right against a left-hander. What’s troubling about this, even as a platoon, is neither Martinez nor Fowler stand apart defensively.
Even though the numbers say Martinez had a better year at first than in right (by 1 defensive run saved), let’s recognize that his days as a Cardinal first baseman are over. So I’ll disregard his numbers at first and focus on his -6 DRS in right field versus Fowler’s -5. Clearly Fowler is the better fielder but not by much. That mark was actually one of Dex’s better fielding years. Yikes.
On a positive note, J-Mart had 3 outfield assists and Fowler 2 in 2018. As limited as each of them were in the outfield this year, knowing they have surprise cannons is slightly reassuring. Although again, not much.
Unfortunately, the 12 projected fielders on the Opening Day roster does not include the above-average fielding Tyler O’Neill (the left-fielder of the future and clear replacement of Marcell Ozuna). This is where Shildt’s previous methodology will need some creativity. How do you manage this position with one of the team’s top three hitters and the guy the front office is not paying to sit the bench?
Bader seems safe in center. But if his bat dwindles terribly, maybe Fowler sees some time in center for the first time since 2017 with Martinez in right. That severely weakens the overall outfield defense but who knows. This is and will be by far the biggest controversy throughout the year.
Another question mark: Jedd Gyorko. I am a huge Gyorko advocate. His starting role has been compromised but that’s okay, I believe his strength is not as a starter but as a dependable bench bat and late inning defensive substitute. Perhaps the only fallback is the fact that his $13 million contract may knock Yairo Munoz from the Opening Day roster. Munoz boasts a greater versatility but Gyorko provides a much steadier defense at his few positions.
I think the addition of Paul Goldschmidt and the relocation of Matt Carpenter will only heighten Gyorko’s value. He now can serve as the right-handed compliment to Carp at third base (don’t ever forget his 16 DRS 2017 campaign) and Wong at second base (his natural position). And he likely won’t have many innings at first base or shortstop because of the additions of Goldy and Drew Robinson.
I know the trade for Robinson raised many eyebrows, but I’ll say this. He’s left-handed. And sure, his small exposure to the big leagues has not been good. But his AAA numbers are great. In 2018, he had a .303/.379/.569 slash line with a .948 OPS over 53 games. And in 2017, a .268/.369/.494 line with a .863 OPS over 66 games. Don’t get too upset just yet.
It’s not a guarantee Robinson makes the Opening Day roster but there is a very high probability considering there wouldn’t be a left-hander on the bench if Fowler, Wong, and Carp start. Munoz and O’Neill will definitely have time in the big leagues but not likely until someone gets hurt or Robinson needs the demotion.
Clearly there are still questions to be answered and others that can’t be answered until the season has begun. Unlike some teams, the Cardinals are not still searching for pieces but are in search of strategy for the maximization of their 12 players. But this is the potential I see for the upcoming year. Now, we can only hope Shildt (and Mozeliak) put the best players on the field and in the clubhouse every day.